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Gregory the Great on Compassion and Contemplation

By Mac Stewart

The Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great are among the lesser-known gems of patristic literature. These dialogues are filled with short, edifying, and often quite charming stories about the Italian saints of Gregory’s day (he devotes the whole of the second book to St. Benedict). The introduction to these dialogues, when read alongside Gregory’s Pastoral Rule, raises an interesting question about the relationship between the work of pastoral ministry and the Christian vocation of contemplation. 

In this introduction, Gregory depicts himself withdrawn into a solitary place where, upon the arrival of his old friend Peter, he laments with great emotion that he has lately been pulled away from the blessed life of contemplation in his abbey to the storms of worldly business involved in pastoral ministry. In the abbey, his soul was “superior to all earthly matters, far above all transitory and corruptible pelf,” and “did usually think upon nothing but heavenly things” (Dialogues I.preface). But now his soul, burdened with the pastoral charge and constantly enduring the storms of secular business, has been “defiled” with “the dust of worldly conversation,” such that it can hardly manage, even when it has a moment to spare, to betake itself again to the heights of contemplation it once enjoyed. 

Gregory here seems to lament the call to pastoral ministry as a burden that holds the contemplative back from a truly godly life, and he tells the stories of the Italian saints (many of whom were strict contemplatives) apparently as a sort of nostalgic reminiscence of the good life he has left behind. On the other hand, early in his Pastoral Rule, Gregory directs a stern rebuke against those who, though endowed with manifold virtues, refuse to undertake the office of ministry. Such men “hide their light under a bushel,” and “while they meditate their own and not another’s gain, they forfeit the very benefits which they desire to keep to themselves” (Pastoral Rule, I.5). 

At the beginning of his Dialogues, is Gregory merely venting steam, knowing deep down that it is wrong for him to long for the quiet of contemplation? Or is there a deeper synthesis to be found in these apparently divergent sensibilities? While we might find such a synthesis by attending simply to the precise target of Gregory’s remonstrances in the Pastoral Rule, I want to suggest that a closer reading of the apparent divergence reveals a more profound point about the relation between contemplation and action in Gregory’s pastoral imagination. 

A first pass at a synthesis might be to suggest that Gregory has in mind as those who “hide their lamp under a bushel” not contemplative monks but rather something more like talented Christians in the world who could make good priests but would rather live in an ivory tower of private learning. His rebuke aims at those so ardent for the “studies of contemplation” that they “shrink from serving” their neighbor by preaching. They have received gifts that would be “publicly useful,” but have preferred their “privacy” to the advantage of others (I.5). 

Anyone who lives under the Rule of St. Benedict, the rule of the abbey from which Gregory was removed for his pastoral service, would not really be the clear target of such remonstrances. While it is true that the Benedictine monk mostly does not preach (apart from the abbot, of course, to his brethren), the Rule constantly orients him away from his privacy and toward the good of his neighbor and of his community. Though these monks are surely contemplatives, there is also quite a lot of activity prescribed for their daily lives (“idleness is the enemy of the soul,” after all). It is more likely, then, that Gregory targets his rebuke toward people who are already priests but failing to engage with their flock on a material level. A major theme later in the text is the necessity for the pastor to understand the practical daily demands that tug on the hearts and energies of his people. The word of true doctrine will not penetrate the mind of the faithful, he says, unless the pastor attends with care to their material burdens: “the heart of the flock is, even as it were of right, set against preaching, if the care of external succor be neglected by the pastor” (II.7).

But while it may be true that Gregory simply has in mind a different audience for his chastisement than those who live contemplative lives in a legitimate way under the Rule of St. Benedict, there is a deeper synthesis discernible in the apparent contradiction between the Dialogues and the Pastoral Rule. Gregory holds, I want to suggest, that while a strictly contemplative life is a good and true and possible calling, the ultimately higher calling is rather to bring the fruits of that contemplation back into the world, especially in the work of preaching, teaching, and pastoring. This is not the higher calling, moreover, merely because it is more selfless. Rather, it is higher because such active work in the world leads, in the end, to a greater contemplation than would otherwise have been possible precisely to the extent that this contemplation has been elevated by the virtue of compassion.

To see how Gregory unfolds this, we should observe first that the literary frame he gives to the Dialogues serves as an effective signal that contemplation is an absolutely indispensable necessity for any pastoral ministry. His lament about the distracting weight of the pastoral burden makes it clear that one of the two directions in which a pastor can fly off the rails is by losing himself amid the material demands of his work: “I see myself so carried away amain with the boisterous blasts of this troublesome world, that I cannot now scarce behold the port from whence I did first hoist sail” (I.preface). And he reiterates this warning repeatedly in the Pastoral Rule. The “care of government” has a tendency to distract the heart in diverse directions, such that “it becomes anxious in the ordering of things that are without, and, ignorant of itself alone, knows how to think of many things, while itself it knows not” (I.4). 

With this frame in place, then, it becomes apparent that the reason Gregory proceeds to sketch the marvelous lives of the Italian saints is to provide for himself and for his readers some solid material for a renewal of this lost contemplative habit. Gregory observes in the Pastoral Rule that the Levitical priest of old was to carry engraved on his breastplate the names of the 12 patriarchs. This is an indication, he says, that the priest is always to have the lives of the fathers before the eyes of his mind: “For the priest then walks blamelessly when he pores continually on the examples of the fathers that went before him, when he considers without cease the footsteps of the Saints” (II.2). 

This is precisely what Gregory offers in his Dialogues: the “names of the twelve patriarchs” in the form of the wondrous lives and deeds of the saints, readily available before the gaze of the priest. Of course, one of the main features of these holy men is that many of them lived a “contemplative and retired kind of life” (I.preface). Is Gregory, then, merely exacerbating his lamentation, setting before himself examples of lives that he wistfully longs to follow, if only he could free himself from pastoral responsibility?

There is certainly an element of the exemplary in the way Gregory sketches these lives. Virtuous examples, he says, are often a more useful spur to action than godly exhortations, and so to some extent Gregory imagines that he is setting these lives up as models for imitation. But there is good reason to think that the primary force of these saintly lives is not so much exemplary as iconic. Clearly the miraculous nature of the stories is central to their importance, but there does not seem to be the suggestion that, by following their virtues, one will necessarily gain the saints’ powers of working wonders. The working of wonders, after all, is ultimately referred to the power, presence, and initiative of God, not to the holy man, and as Peter eagerly awaits Gregory’s narrations in order that he might become a “partaker” of some of these lives, he also clarifies that the point of “comparing” one’s life to that of the saints is not so much to copy them but to “inflame” one’s love of heaven, and to be humbled by the awareness of such sanctity in the world when one’s virtue is so paltry (I.preface). The saints’ lives, in other words, serve (like icons) as windows into heaven, as testimonies to the grandeur and power of God still at work in the world.

This iconic function makes all the difference for the way the worn-out pastor engages with these holy lives. If it is possible to participate in the holiness of the saints — specifically, those who have withdrawn from the world and whom God now uses as instruments to show forth his miraculous works — not by imitating them but by contemplating them, the pastor in the world can now use such contemplation as fuel to return with vigor and elation to his pastoral charge. And this is precisely what Gregory is doing in his Dialogues. He is taking a breather from his daily work to find again the fuel for the fire his ministry requires. Where this contemplation leads the pastor, then, is not out into the desert but back into the world, into the mire and muck of the daily trials of his people. And by God’s marvelous providence, what he will find when he brings the fruits of his contemplation back into the active service of his people is that such action on their behalf will in turn elevate his contemplation to new heights that would otherwise have been unavailable to him. 

Chapter 5 of Book II in the Pastoral Rule is the key text here. At first in this chapter, Gregory seems only to be reiterating one of his standard themes that both contemplation and action are necessary in the pastoral life, “lest either in seeking high things [the pastor] despise the weak things of his neighbours, or in suiting himself to the weak things of his neighbours he relinquish his aspiration after high things” (II.5). The biblical models for this necessary balance are manifold, and Gregory leads them out one by one. 

Paul was caught up into Paradise and explored the secrets of the third heaven, but he also condescended to give pastoral direction to such paradigmatically human activities as the carnal relations between husband and wife; he knew how “both to transcend himself in contemplation, and to accommodate himself to his hearers in condescension” (II.5). On Jacob’s ladder, angels ascended and descended, signifying the two directions toward which true preachers must orient themselves. Moses both entered frequently into the tabernacle and busied himself with the material affairs of his people. Nor did he lose the grace of contemplation when he left the tabernacle to attend to business; rather, the dual orientation was a fixed disposition, one internal, one external: “Within he considers the secret things of God; without he carries the burdens of the carnal” (ibid.).

But what enables each of these holy men to span this gap between heaven and earth is love: they are all “joined at once to the highest and to the lowest by the bond of charity” (ibid., referring to Paul). And this leads to Gregory’s most important insight. He summarizes the dual way of contemplation and action that is to be followed by good rulers: 

though already in contemplation aspiring to the highest things, they should mingle in sympathy with the necessities of the infirm; since charity then rises wonderfully to high things when it is compassionately drawn to the low things of neighbours; and the more kindly it descends to the weak things of this world, the more vigorously it recurs to the things on high. (II.5)

While contemplation of the iconic wonders performed by the saints fuels the fire of the pastor’s zeal, it is the act of compassionate sharing in the burdens of his people that will lead the pastor, in turn, back to newer and greater heights of contemplation. Even “more vigorously” than before will he return to the things on high, inasmuch as charity actively discharged will now make the fire of his contemplation blaze all the more brightly. 

Of course, the pastor will face manifold temptations. It is his task to be the unloading station for the dark and gruesome secrets in the souls of his people, and like the laver for washing above the 12 molten oxen outside the Temple, “in receiving the pollutions of those who wash, it [i.e., the priest’s soul] loses, as it were, the calmness of its own purity” (ibid.). But, Gregory says, the pastor need not fear this, since under God “he is the more easily rescued from his own temptations as he is more compassionately distressed by those of others” (ibid.). Ultimately, it is compassion that leads through the pits of this world to the greatest heights of heaven.

No doubt Gregory did often long for the old peace of his monastery. The turmoil of bearing the burdens of others will inevitably weary every serious and genuinely faithful pastor. But taken within the total frame of his pastoral imagination, Gregory’s laments at the beginning of his Dialogues reflect not an about-face to the monastery, but the first step toward new and greater heights of contemplation. The iconic lives of the saints that he sketches fuel with an influx of heavenly grace his capacity to share in the burdens of his people, but such compassion in turn only makes the fire of contemplation burn more brightly with the ever-ascending beauty of heavenly joys.



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